BOISE — Researchers at Boise State University say they have used emerging nanotechnology techniques to devise a way to kill cancer cells while leaving normal cells healthy.

Biology professor Denise Wingett said that many cancer drugs target rapidly dividing cells but can leave people sick because the dose is also toxic to other cells in the body.

"One of the greatest challenges preventing advances in new therapeutic options for treating cancer is the inability of anti-cancer drugs to effectively differentiate between cancerous and normal healthy body cells," Wingett, a cancer researcher, told the Idaho Statesman.

But the group said its research has found that zinc-oxide nanoparticles can selectively kill cancer cells without harming normal cells.

"Until now, no group in the world has been able to produce inherent selective cancer-killing ability in nanoparticles," Wingett said. "Current chemotherapy drugs typically consist of single molecules and do not provide much room for manipulation of the molecule. But nanoparticles can be modified so that certain characteristics, like cancer-killing attributes, can be accentuated. Because of this, we think there is room for improvement in what we have already demonstrated."

The group described its work in a paper published in July in the journal Nanotechnology. The paper has become one of the most popular in the 58 journals published by the Institute of Physics, being downloaded more than 250 times in the first month of its publication.

Jame Abraham, director of the Comprehensive Breast Cancer Program at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center at West Virginia University, said the work done by the Boise State researchers shows great promise but more study is needed.

"Oncology is always looking for a magic bullet, which can kill only the cancer cells, not killing the normal cells," Abraham said. "This work is a major step toward that. I think this work will pave the way for more targeted therapies."